This semester I have had the opportunity to fall in love with great men of my heritage who spoke truth years before I could spell out the word truth. Men who I had never studied because they had never been taught to me. After studying them I couldn’t help but wonder why?
The funny thing about being born African is that unless you deliberately decide to delve into your identity, you will never know your history. We are fed with the histories of countries vast and wide spanned across centuries separated by oceans from our own.
We can tell you about the Tudor family with Bloody Mary, and Queen Elizabeth the first of England. We can tell you about the French Revolution and the Queen who cried, “Let them eat cake” when the poor people cried of poverty and hunger. We can talk about the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, Industrialization, and settlements. We can tell you of heroes of war like George Washington, and heroes of faith like Martin Luther. We can tell you of the great philosophers such as Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. We can debate on Western development identities like ‘Communism’ ‘socialism’ or capitalism. We know of economic theorists like Adam Smith. Ask us all these things and we will tell you.
Yet ask of our history and the answers get stuck on our tongue. Ask us of greatness in Africa and we scratch our heads as we try and collect our thoughts, attempting to reproduce forgotten memories of what we have heard other people say. We piece together fabricated tales of Ancient Egypt. The beautiful but overly told stories of Pharaohs and Nubian Kings, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and pyramids. Then we defend this Africa with a vehemence that is scary.
My problem is why do we have to search so far back through the pages of time to look for greatness? As if greatness in Africa ended with Ancient Egypt. Did it? Ask us for greatness after that and we don’t know how to respond.
Because after that we see weakness. We see us, the colonized; we see us, the slaves; we see us, the weak, ignorant savages who were naïve enough to let our lands be taken and our people sold for a piece of shiny useless copper because we did not know any better.
We see rebellion, then war.
Then we see freedom as if it was given to us and not forcefully taken. Almost condescending in the way it is presented, “Ohh you think you can survive on your own? Watch your leaders in our pockets crumble you to shambles. You wouldn’t be developed without us in the first place.”
Then when those who are brave enough actually rise up, those who speak for greatness in Africa they are shut down with a vehemence. Because when a people start to believe they are great they become a threat.
First world Nations understand this. Look at the American culture. The country was built from several servings of independent ego. From the time they are born they are taught to believe in their own greatness regardless of whether it is truth or not.
Julias Nyerere is most recently my favourite philosopher on Education because of his idea of what it should be and his understanding of the reality of what it is. He states the original intention of legitimate education as liberation. Do you understand that? Education is not meant to lock up our creativity but to free our critical thinking, to remind us who we are so we can fight for who we are, so that we can win over oppression, injustice, and the idea of privilege in our society. This is independence. This is freedom. This is liberation.
However the reality is vastly different. The reality is we remain held captive by Neo-colonialism, taught the greatness of everyone else but our own. This, to remind us that we are inferior to the superpowers of our world. The saddest thing is that we willingly preach this message to ourselves. Forgetting how easy it is to get complacent. Our schools almost robotically teaching subjects which feel dead for the sole purpose of producing students with good grades who can get good jobs who can sit quietly and pay taxes like the good little citizens they are supposed to be, and then die.
Why do we think like this? We have to go back and understand what education was originally intended to achieve in the colonized society so that we can see why it is where it is today and what we need to change it. Mwalimu Nyerere states it as such,
“It was not designed to prepare young people for the service of their own country; instead it was motivated by a desire to inculcate the values of the colonial society and to train individuals for the service of the colonial state. In these countries the state interest in education therefore stemmed from the need for local clerks and junior officials; on top of that, various religious groups were interested in spreading literacy and other education as part of their evangelical work.
This statement of fact is not given as a criticism of the many individuals who worked hard, often under difficult conditions, in teaching and in organizing educational work. Nor does it imply that all the values these people transmitted in the schools were wrong or inappropriate. What it does mean, however, is that the educational system introduced into Tanzania, (A/N… And Kenya, and most other African countries) by the colonialists was modelled on the British system, but with even heavier emphasis on subservient attitudes and on white-collar skills. Inevitably, too, it was based on the assumptions of a colonialist and capitalist society. It emphasized and encouraged the individualistic instincts of mankind, instead of his co-operative instincts. It led to the possession of individual material wealth being the major criterion of social merit and worth.”
He then goes on to say, “Only when we are clear about the kind of society we are trying to build can we design our educational service to serve our goals.”
So dear Kenya if you want schools to stop burning, you need to start unlearning your way of teaching. Start critically thinking about the kind of society that you want to build this country on for your children. And teach them their potential for greatness by reminding them of the richness we have had in African culture, from politics to religion to social practices to economics. You can’t and won’t do that by only quoting and telling the history of –as my lecturer likes to put it- dead white men.6